5 Groundbreaking Ways to Tell Stories in the Future of Filmmaking

Creators from Tribeca 2016's interactive showcases offer insights from the edge of modern storytelling.

No matter how you feel about it, virtual reality filmmaking and experiential storytelling is happening. And it's getting better and better. No longer just a gimmick, filmmakers are using the technology to serve the story instead of the other way around.

One of the best places to experience the latest VR and other immersive storytelling offerings is the thoughtfully curated interactive lineup at the Tribeca Film Festival's Hub, which boasted a Virtual Arcade of 15+ VR films in addition to its Storyscapes and TFI Interactive programming this year. The highlighted projects were wildly diverse in subject and execution, ranging from 6x9, a visceral documentary about solitary confinement; to Hard World for Small Things, a dramatic narrative as experienced from the backseat of a convertible in Los Angeles; to Allumette, a tear-jerker animated film that lets viewers waltz through the clouds.

If you're thinking about venturing into VR or experimenting with other new forms of storytelling, take heed from some of the creators and speakers from this year's lineup.

"Everything in the VR space is a suggestion​."


1. Let your narratives collide

One of the four Storyscapes installations, Seances, co-created by celebrated experimental filmmaker Guy Maddin, invites small audiences to collaboratively choose thumbnails on a touch-screen light table, thereby producing a sequence of scenes that would then screen for them as a one-time-only viewing experience.

As with many contemporary narratives that rely on audience participation, this design meant that the filmmakers had to give up some control over the outcome, but producer Alicia Smith with project collaborator the National Film Board of Canada recounted this as part of the point. "It was built that way at scriptwriting the level," she said. "They saw the narratives as colliding, and from those collisions, new narratives would emerge."

By making audiences instinctively choose scenes and letting the computer be the editor, juxtapositions create new meanings that the original filmmakers could not have anticipated. Smith admitted that "some will be fantastic; some not." But isn't that true of any film?

2. Create situations instead of scenes

Featured VR film The Turning Forest is a delightful, magical experience. Imagine if you could have met Falkor the Dragon from The Neverending Story, jumped on his back, and ridden him through the sky as the story unfolded.

"Camera work is outsourced to the user​."

"If you come from the filmmaker tradition," director Oscar Raby  advised, "start by realizing that everything in the VR space is a suggestion. Camera work is outsourced to the user." Thus, your job is to take care of the audience by understanding what they are going through and "conducting" them through the experience. "You have to think about the things that might happen, and then you give them a flow, so the journey of the user makes sense."

As the director in VR, part of your role is to create situations, not just a sequence of actions. And it's not only the director's role that is different: in the script, the place changes rather than the action, and ultimately the audience is the one taking the hero’s journey, even if they are not the protagonist. According to Raby, "it’s the audience that goes through the experience and comes out changed."

3. Think outside the frame

TFI Interactive speaker Jessica Brillhart (whose 360-degree film World Tour is shown above) has possibly the coolest job title today: Principal Filmmaker for VR at Google. In her presentation, she acknowledged that "a well-crafted frame is remarkable," but credited VR for embracing our ability to turn away from the frame.

Brillhart shared some details of her method for "Probabilistic Experiential Editing" in VR. Despite its unfortunate acronym, PEE is a useful way of thinking about editing in a situation where the viewer can look anywhere. You can both guess where their attention will gravitate and lead them to specific points by, for example, using spatial audio as a trigger to draw audience attention. Then, you can create the equivalent of a match cut, but matching on points of attention rather than specific objects.

In thinking outside the frame, "you can get audiences to see what you want them to see by guessing where they will look and then using that to send them to another space or scene." This opens up possibilities to use traditional editing theory in new ways.

4. You can still D.I.Y. it

Gadget geeks can embrace the myriad opportunities that VR offers to tinker with its evolving gear.

Case in point is the story behind The Click Effect, one of this year's most effective uses of VR. A New York Times and VRSE collaboration by Sandy Smollan and James Nestor, the project takes audiences underwater with free-divers to come face-to-face—and more importantly, mouth-to-ear—with dolphins and sperm whales.

"We were the first to do this, and it was a nightmare."

The original 360 video was captured for scientific research about dolphin communication and intelligence, but VR turned out to be the best way to engage audiences beyond the scientific community.

Nestor’s background is in journalism, and he had little previous filmmaking experience. He not only had to learn to free dive for this project, but also how to shoot 360-degrees underwater. "We were the first to do this, and it was a nightmare," Nestor half-joked. Since a 360-rig didn’t yet exist for underwater shoots, the crew had to come up with their own. The big problem? The cameras are controlled via Bluetooth, but Bluetooth doesn't work below the sea. The team decided to load and activate the cameras on the surface; they had 40 minutes to swim out to locations, dive down, make adjustments, and shoot before coming back up for air and starting the whole process over again.

GoPro's forthcoming Omni camera claims to enable 360-degree underwater shots, but there are still plenty of ways for the D.I.Y.-er in all of us to push the boundaries of VR gear.

5. Your location can be part of the story

Immersive storytelling is not limited to virtual locations; we have more ways than ever to make real locations part of our stories, as well. One of the most fun illustrations of this concept was presented by Matt Johnson, founder of Bare Conductive, which makes products like electrically conductive paint.

Johnson and his company encourage "storytelling through playful interactions." They envision a world in which electronics are fully integrated into an environment, rather than dominating it. Imagine if audiences could physically step into your set, and by touching different items on the wall, or sitting on certain pieces of furniture, different parts of your story would be revealed to them. That future is here.

The Ark by Jongsma + O'Neill
In this 360° image from Tribeca world premiere VR film 'The Ark' by Eline Jongsma and Kel O'Neill, rhino keeper Zachariah feeds Sudan, the last male northern white rhino on earth.

None of these technologies or tools will replace feature films, and we wouldn't want them to. But if you are a filmmaker or storyteller who wants to "think outside the frame," now is your moment.

What do you think is the most exciting new storytelling tool? What makes you nervous about these new forms? Chime in below.

Be sure to check back for more coverage of Tribeca 2016.      

Header image from The Turning Forest. 

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Your Comment


Basically everything I love about the filmmaking process would be reworked so the audience can whip their head around. If the user is control of camera movement and can make interactive choices is that even a movie? I'd consider it more of a video game.

April 26, 2016 at 10:02AM

Stephen Herron

I totally hear where you are coming from, but many of the people making VR are coming from traditional filmmaking, and the ones who are doing it well are those who are embracing what's best in both forms of media. A lot of the VR films now are stories, with points of view and dramatic arcs, but they allow for more exploration and points of view to be shared at once.

April 26, 2016 at 12:38PM

Liz Nord
Documentary Filmmaker/Multi-platform Producer

Yeah, it's definitely an interesting medium and I can't really judge until I've seen a good VR film, but that's also a big issue with the format, convincing creators and audiences to invest in it. Great write up though, helpful for peeple who want to experiment with it.

April 26, 2016 at 1:58PM

Stephen Herron

VR isn't the future of filmmaking. Films will always be better told on a screen. I love new technology but some new technology is vaporware. VR filmmaking is the equivalent of the apple watch.

April 26, 2016 at 12:23PM

Zachary Will

The thing that strikes me as silly about VR for cinematic purposes is that it introduces vast amounts of visual information but only say 15-20% of potential viewing has any real relevance. If I'm in a workshop, watching someone working on a motorcycle, why would I even want the option to stare at the wall "behind me". It feels like an extremely inefficient use of visual information and a lazy way to just throw vast amounts of information at people and expect them to construct their own experience.

To obtain the same efficiency out of a single 360 frame as filmmakers can with a single traditional frame, you would have to cram enormous amounts of relevant information at which point, the sheer volume would be too much for an audience to even take in. Unless you limit your movie to staying at fixated points long enough for people to absorb everything you've put into a single 360 degree frame.

I can see how VR would have great use in educational capacities and certainly interactive gaming (when the game is centered more on action than narrative substance), but there would have to be some major changes made for it to be practical for cinematic use, in my mind. The entire time I was watching "Jump', I felt like I wasn't getting enough out of any of the frames before I was violently shifted to the next location. I found myself having to pause and explore the entire environment before I could really let the scene sink in. And even then, I was constantly wondering whether or not I was missing something going on behind me that was equally as interesting as what was happening in front of me.

To make VR effective for cinematic use, there has to be a way to ensure audiences that whatever is going on behind them is not equally or more important than what they're already watching every step of the way. At which point, you've basically defeated the purpose of having a 360 degree field of view. But that, I feel, is what they need to address. It's a neat technology and the implications are exciting, I just think they have a loooong way to go before it will be a practical tool for filmmakers instead of just a kitch trend.

April 26, 2016 at 10:46PM

Daniel Vestal
Video Producer

VR while an interesting development benefits the game industry rather than the film industry considering that by definition, a game is an interactive medium whereas film is a passive medium. Then again, VR can apply film techniques to produce very interesting results.

April 27, 2016 at 12:33PM, Edited April 27, 12:34PM


Allumette was definitely the best VR experience at Tribeca.

The Samsung Gear is limited, but the HTC Vive is where it's at.

April 27, 2016 at 4:50PM, Edited April 27, 4:50PM

Paul-Vincent Alexander